NEET and McDonald’s

Published : Jul 10, 2024 18:28 IST - 6 MINS READ

Dear Reader,

George Ritzer is an American sociologist, professor, and author best known for his work on the concept of “McDonaldization”. Born in 1940, Ritzer has made significant contributions to the field of sociology, particularly in the areas of globalisation, consumption, and social theory. McDonaldization is a term coined by Ritzer in his 1993 book The McDonaldization of Society that describes the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant, particularly McDonald’s, have come to dominate various sectors of American society and the rest of the world. The theory extends Max Weber’s ideas on rationalisation (how rational, calculated systems replace traditional, emotional forms of social organisation) and bureaucracy to contemporary society.

Here are some key aspects of McDonaldization. First, efficiency: The optimisation of methods to achieve a desired outcome quickly and with minimal effort. Second, calculability: Giving priority to quantifiable results rather than quality. The next is predictability, or standardisation of products and services to ensure consistency across time and space. Next is control, using technology and rules to minimise human variability and error.

There are more, but let us stick to these for now.

Ritzer argues that while McDonaldization has brought certain benefits, such as increased efficiency and standardisation, it also has negative consequences that include dehumanisation of work and social interactions; homogenisation of culture; loss of creativity and individuality; environmental degradation due to mass production and consumption; and a lot more. Ritzer and others have pointed out that the concept of McDonaldization has been applied to various fields beyond fast food, including education, healthcare, politics, and even intimate relationships. Ritzer’s work on McDonaldization has been both influential and controversial. While some scholars have criticised it for oversimplifying complex social phenomena, many others have used it as a useful framework for understanding contemporary social trends.

The raging controversy around India’s National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (Undergraduate) or NEET exams and the country’s dilemma around standardised testing and the efficiency around such competitive exams prompt the question: Are we witnessing a McDonaldization of education in India? McDonaldization in education manifests itself most prominently perhaps in the proliferation of standardised testing and competitive exams, assessments designed to efficiently evaluate large numbers of students but that have become the primary measure of educational success. And, as we have seen in the NEET fiasco, this approach has significant implications for children and society at large.

After the revelation in early June that NEET exam papers were leaked, the fiery debate in India has brought to the fore a few important concerns: The pressure to perform well in these high-stakes exams often leads to increased stress and anxiety among students. Students tend to focus on “exam skills” rather than developing a genuine understanding of subjects. The over-reliance on standardised answers discourages creative thinking and problem-solving skills. Non-academic skills and extracurricular activities are often neglected in favour of exam preparation. Also, the system favours those who can afford costly extra tuition and resources, increasing socioeconomic disparities.

Experts that this writer spoke to about this issue agree that an over-emphasis on exam performance may not adequately prepare students for real-world challenges and job market needs and that standardised curricula and testing can lead to a loss of cultural diversity in education. Teachers often feel pressured to “teach to the test”, limiting their ability to inspire and cultivate a love for learning.

The McDonaldization of competitive exams has led to an education system that often values quantifiable results over qualitative learning experiences. India is at a cusp where it encounters both super-rapid technological advancements and very complex global and domestic challenges, so this approach must be re-evaluated and replaced by an educational system that fosters creativity, critical thinking, and adaptability alongside academic knowledge.

This is not to say competitive exams are all bunkum. In fact, they have been a cornerstone of educational and professional advancement for centuries. From the ancient Chinese imperial examinations to modern-day college entrance tests, these high-stakes assessments have been both a ladder for social mobility and a subject of intense debate and criticism.

One of the earliest and most influential competitive examinations was the Chinese imperial examination, established in 605 CE during the Sui Dynasty. This system, which lasted over 1,300 years until its abolition in 1905, was designed to select the most capable individuals for government positions, regardless of their social background. In Europe, competitive exams gained prominence during the Industrial Revolution. The British East India Company introduced competitive examinations for civil service positions in India in 1855, a practice that was later adopted in Britain itself. This marked a shift from patronage-based appointments to merit-based selection, at least in theory.

Competitive exams did have one impact on social structures and mobility—they provided opportunities for individuals from less privileged backgrounds to advance based on abilities alone. But they also ended up reinforcing existing inequalities in access to quality education and resources. The pressure to succeed in these exams finally led to the emergence of entire industries dedicated to test preparation. In South Korea, the controversial hagwons(private cram schools) have become so pervasive that the government has had to intervene to regulate their operating hours. This “shadow education” system often worsens socio-economic divides, as only those who can afford extra tutoring benefit from it. India has its Kotas and Namakkals.

In Japan, the term “exam hell” (juken jigoku) which describes the intense pressure faced by students preparing for university entrance exams has inspired a horror computer video game of the same name.

In many Asian countries, the pressure to excel in these exams has led to alarming rates of stress, anxiety, and even suicide among students. Our October 6, 2023 issue looked at the pressure cooker that India’s education system is. While the American standardised tests such as SAT and ACT have been praised for providing a common metric for college admissions, they have also been criticised for narrowing the focus of education. American educator Diane Ravitch (who will be familiar to those who read the NYRB) once noted, “When we define what matters in education only by what we can measure, we are in serious trouble”.

So what needs to be done?

Balancing the efficiency of standardised assessment with the need for holistic education remains a crucial challenge. As we move forward, it is essential to develop evaluation methods that can accurately measure a wider range of skills and competencies, ensuring that our education system prepares children not just for exams, but for life.

Ultimately, the story of competitive exams is a microcosm of our broader struggles with fairness, opportunity, and the definition of success. The NEET fiasco is no exception. The future of competitive exams must involve a delicate balance between tradition and innovation, striving to create more equitable, holistic, and less stressful pathways to success. We owe our children that much.

The latest edition of Frontline looks at these concerns with a specific focus on NEET and the problematic National Testing Agency, with educationists like Furqan Qamar, Apoorvanand, and M. Suresh Babu along with our New Delhi bureau chief T.K. Rajalakshmi analysing the crisis and the way forward. We have kept the articles outside the paywall, given the gravity and urgency of the issue. Read them and write to us with your comments on what our education system needs to do to improve.

Wishing you a meaningful week,

For Frontline,

Jinoy Jose P.

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